Thursday, 28 December 2017

I Don't Want To Glow

Doctor Who
Twice Upon A Time
2017 Christmas Special

Here we are again, huh?  Another era over.  And just like last time, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say about it or to cap off.  Steven Moffat seemed ready to follow Matt Smith out the door when he wrote The Time Of The Doctor, filling it with references and sort-of-but-not-really tying up loose ends, but the fiftieth anniversary Special went better than expected and he got a second wind hiring Peter Capaldi to follow Smith.  At that point, things seemed like they might get interesting again.

Day 1, practicing his David Bradley.
And they... sort of did?  The Twelfth Doctor (also the Thirteenth, Fourteenth or First Mk II, cheers Steven) was abrasive, rude and difficult.  He consequently spent Series Eight wondering if he really was a good man after all.  When it turned out this was in fact still Doctor Who, so duh-on-a-stick the Doctor is still a goodie (despite inexplicably being a prick now), things went sharply the other way: he got a hoodie, a guitar and (nyurgh) sonic sunglasses.  A softer, like totally rad Twelfth Doctor was born, one who could dazzle a room and change people’s minds with Youtube-worthy speeches.  It wasn’t subtle, and it made the whole Year Of The Douchebag seem curiously pointless, but Capaldi was still too good to pass up.  He waded through imperfect scripts and usually got something good out of them.  (And he finally got a hands-down classic episode, though for me it remains his only one.)

Sure enough, the scripts stayed largely flimflam and balls.  Did anyone think recasting the lead would fix that?  We still had a showrunner obsessed with cool-sounding, ultimately dead-end arcs, a Mary Sue companion who held ridiculous sway over the Doctor and a permanent reservation for Mark Gatiss, no questions asked.  Moffat continued to put his mucky stamp on the show’s history at every opportunity, asking silly questions where we can all guess the answers, and the stakes only seemed to get smaller.  Series 10 refreshed some of these elements, particularly with a new companion who was recognisably from Earth, but other shortcomings remained the same.  It wasn’t much of an era for Capaldi (who still seems like the new guy to me), and now he’s off, which just seems like the thing you do after three series rather than a natural progression for him.  (Not that he has been here three years; let’s not forget 2016, The Year Of One Episode.)  He’d have already gone in The Doctor Falls if we didn’t need a Christmas Special, so here we are again, putting his golden jazz hands on hold for one more hour.  As it happens, “on hold for one more hour” is a fairly accurate synopsis for Twice Upon A Time.

The Doctor doesn’t want to regenerate.  “Ah,” I hear you say, “this again.”  For the Tenth Doctor famously Didn’t Want To Go, which seemed overly dramatic at first but was actually in character for him.  (Even that time he was a different species.)  It’s a fear of death, and we can all relate.  But that kind of psychological scaffolding isn’t in place this time.  The Twelfth Doctor never seemed like he had an issue with change (ahem, hoodies), if anything he’s quite pragmatic and unsentimental, so he’s probably quite likely to just get on with the switch.  Alas, it’s not just a new Doctor he’s got a problem with, it’s continuing to live at all.  Eh?  He wants to die?!  Not so relatable.  There’s nothing wrong with him making a principled stand, but it would be nice if they’d properly set it up first.  Okay, there is a hint of no-more-regeneration ennui right back in his first episode when he confronts the Half-Face Man; also Heaven Sent memorably relates the gruelling process of regenerating ad infinitum, although that was a time-loop and it’s not exactly clear whether he remembers it, since he says he’s 2,000 years old here.  These bits do hint towards not wanting to go on any more, but he doesn’t actually talk about it all that much apart from there, and seems pretty zesty in general.  Transparently the only reason he’s stamping his foot now is that we need to squeeze another episode out of him first.

Speaking of transparent: the Testimony.
Delivering the best pain relief on New Earth!
To help said foot-stamping along we have a juicy parallel: the First Doctor himself, sort of, pottering around the South Pole and also refusing to regenerate.  This doesn’t fit what we know about him – our Doctor even points that out! – but I can see how having another Doctor suffer the same crisis might give it some credence.  It’s cheating, but what else is he going to do?  It’s also somewhat redundant as we know both of them are going to regenerate, but it could be compelling to watch them come to terms with it.  However, there’s bonus redundancy: the First Doctor is played by David Bradley, who dramatized William Hartnell’s exit from the show in An Adventure In Space And Time.  Hartnell, too, didn’t want to go.  (Thanks to Mark Gatiss’s mawkish and revisionist script, he even said David Tennant’s final line to ram it home.)  In other words, you’ve seen David Bradley go through these motions – and more affectingly so, as the stakes made more sense for the actor than they do for the character.  (The Doctor’s a Time Lord, and while regeneration must be scary as hell, especially the first time, a figurative gun to his head is not obviously more appealing.  And that’s what not going through with it means.)

If peculiar characterisation of the First Doctor is going to be an issue for you, locate your nearest exit.  Twice Upon A Time has some odd ideas about William Hartnell’s time on the show, knotting together his real life irritability with certain red flag moments like threatening Susan with a “jolly good smacked bottom” to create an embarrassing, frequently non-PC stereotype.  This Doctor is so out of time – chuckling at remarks about women being “made of glass”, casually explaining that Polly is there to clean the TARDIS – that Capaldi-Doc keeps having to apologise for him.  As with his shared refusal to regenerate giving us a convenient “this totally makes sense you guys” comparison, it’s a lazy straw man to show how far we’ve come, and it’s astonishingly unearned.

In the first place, Hartnell wasn’t like this: he could be equal-opportunities blunt with people, but some of that was the actor rather than the character, and any of this sexist rubbish would have rightly earned him a black eye from Barbara or an intervention from Verity Lambert.  More importantly, if any era of the show has given us sexism and a juvenile obsession with stereotypes, it’s Steven Moffat’s.  We’ve had the Eleventh Doctor lusting after Clara’s arse, Amy wanting to shag her duplicate, River Song highlighting The Differences Between Men And Women – Am I Right, Girls? and a general sitcom-esque objectification of females.  (No, making them magically better-than-men is not a compliment.)  It’s the reason I’m very grateful Moffat isn’t the guy writing the first female Doctor, as it would likely be about as empowering as Roy Chubby Brown.  Considering Bradley-Doc is largely here for the fan-service, it’s an utterly bizarre move to then insult him, especially for things either misunderstood or taken out of context.  (The “smacked bottom” remark came right before his granddaughter left the show; infantilising her probably came out of desperation to keep her.)

If you want to be charitable (again), Bradley-Doc’s behaviour can be interpreted as a finger-wagging response to those outraged by a female Doctor, showing the worst knee-jerk response for the silliness it is.  However, they do this by misrepresenting the show’s own past (and annoying people who like Hartnell), risk irritating people who are concerned about Jodie Whittaker but aren’t raging misogynists, and it all sounds completely insincere coming from the Coupling guy anyway.  So I’m not on board this particular train of thought.

"You'll not mind me saying this, since lots of my friends are black..."
As for Bradley, his obvious talents and accolades notwithstanding, I wasn’t convinced by him as Hartnell in the docudrama and I’m still not.  His cadence is quite different, he’s breathless and vaguely amiable, the loveable waspishness is absent; he holds onto his lapels as if his life depended on it, which ends up looking a bit desperate, like Churchill always having a cigar in his gob.  Between him being mischaracterised and Capaldi having his unearned end-of-life crisis, the whole thing has roughly as much depth as Time Crash.  We get the same level of gags with a Classic Doctor mocking new Who tropes, such as the screwdriver, the sunglasses and Capaldi’s rock star grandstanding; Bradley is right to mock them, but it’s no good just serving up your own shortcomings if you’re not able to rise above them.  All it does is make Capaldi look like a collection of stupid habits.

The entire episode can’t just be a refusal to regenerate followed by a shrug and an “Oh well, I guess I’ll regenerate then”, particularly as it’s instantly obvious to Capaldi that Bradley snuffing it would erase him anyway.  Sure enough, there’s no real discussion to be had on the subject: they admit they’re a bit scared, cheer up and then it’s time to go.  So time goes a bit wonky, and Mark Gatiss arrives as an unintentionally Hitler-esque First World War soldier, who is also about to die.  He’s been taken out of time, or rather some aliens are trying to put him back in his proper time because of the Doctors not dying, possibly – it’s not very clear what he’s doing in the South Pole, but the Testimony are keen to get things moving deathwards.  They are a futuristic database who come to all of us when we die, for reasons the Doctor immediately assumes to be sinister.  He is keen to keep the Captain alive, which provides a sort of parallel to his own situation.  I’m not sure it’s needed with Bradley having literally the same crisis right next to him, and the character’s happy ending scuppers any parallel about accepting your own death, but let’s face it, it’s a gig for Gatiss.  He’s rather good here, although the repeated “I’m not really following all this” gag doesn’t appreciate in value.  The notably nameless character does end up in fanwank territory, inevitably, retconning the Doctor’s relationship with one old friend as something he always intended; like all of Moffat’s retcons, it doesn’t actually fit and you’ll instantly file it under “Nope”, but hey, it’s his last episode!

Also here: Bill.  Sort of.  Because this is Moffat Who and nobody ever dies, Bill already survived her own demise in The Doctor Falls, flying into space with Heather.  This isn’t the same Bill – it’s a collection of memories created by the Testimony, which she argues is exactly the same as Bill anyway.  (There’s a bigger discussion to be had there, which we of course skip.)  Much like Clara hanging around with Smith before he regenerated, Bill is a latecomer and doesn’t have that strong a bond with the Doctor, and there’s not much left to say besides her telling him to regenerate, and also having some awkward downtime with Bradley-Doc.  In some of Pearl Mackie’s most forced dialogue, she quizzes the First Doctor on why he left Gallifrey and what he was running to, which Bradley/Moffat promptly points out is a brilliant question and not just a nothingy way to ask the same thing again.  Yes, we get another examination of the Doctor’s history, followed by another summary of how wonderful and cuddly and gumdrops he really is.  (Provided you ignore all the sexist comments.)  It made me realise just how much time Moffat has spent revising and repeating the basic tenets of the show and obsessively trying to own them, and not for the first time, it made me clock-watch.

"I left Gallifrey, of course, to get a bit of peace and quiet!  Women, you see.
Also they can't drive."
Bill also restores the Doctor’s memory of Clara, i.e. gets Jenna Coleman in for a cameo, which is also a bit like Smith’s exit – sorry Clara, Amy’s calling!  This chucks away whatever lingering relevance Hell Bent might have had, with its confused amnesia resolution, but it’s not the first time Moffat’s made a big stink about something, got bored with it and then binned it altogether.  For example, he seems to have forgotten that Clara erased the Doctor’s memory, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to complain about it here.

As the episode draws to a close, it’s awkwardly clear there’s been almost no plot.  The Testimony are apparently a nice enough bunch, so there’s exactly no danger here: they want to store memories so we don’t truly lose people, i.e. they do exactly what Gallifreyans already do with the Matrix, which the Doctor has no problem with.  (It also recalls the “Heaven” stuff from Series Eight, probably unintentionally.)  The Doctor needs to look them up first on “the biggest database in the universe” for some reason, which shockingly-not-shockingly involves the Daleks, and gives him a weird excuse to go and see Rusty from Into The Dalek.  Then it’s back to the war, somehow skipping forward in time to the Christmas Armistice in order to save the Captain’s life, although time was frozen when they left so how does that work?  Both Doctors agree it’s time to cark it, and the First Doctor successfully pilots his TARDIS for the second time this episode, after reminding us it’s something he can’t do.  Because Christmas.  Capaldi-Doc talks to not-Bill and not-Nardole who implore him to regenerate, so he does.  While this whole journey could be seen as a fourth-wall bothering look at a TV show that must go on and on like no other, in that arena it’s scuppered by Heaven Sent, which said all of that already.

But you can hardly blame Moffat for having nothing left to say.  This episode, after all, is stalling.  With no great threat to kill the Doctor (it happened in The Doctor Falls, and frankly it was disappointing), this is the over-extended farewell tour from The End Of Time, stretched to a whole episode.  You’re here for the regeneration scene.  Finally, it comes, and it’s just as noticeably out of puff as the rest of it, not helped by treating regeneration as something you can virtually ignore, save for one scene where Capaldi gets a slight cramp.  When it comes to the famous last words, Moffat already wrote a beautiful speech about regeneration in Matt’s (otherwise pretty wretched) send-off: all about looking at your past and accepting that was all you, but it isn’t you now, it was poignant and apt, and troubled the fourth wall only a little.  What else is there to say, especially with no one to say it to?  So Capaldi, a Doctor now known mostly for speeches and grandly pointing at things, reels off an overcooked confection of Terrance Dicks, Bertrand Russell and Capaldi’s own remarks at a convention, which merrily puts a fist through the fourth wall.  (Granted, “only children can hear my name” probably sounded great in front of adoring fans, but it’s doolally coming from the Doctor, who is not prone to self-mythologizing.  It also sidesteps that River knows his name, although if we can now go forward and pretend she didn’t happen, I’m all for it.)

First drafts included: "Fandabbydozy!"
"Eh bah gum, I got new eyebrows I 'ave!"
"They're pickin' us off, one by one!"
Push finally comes to shove and we’re reminded how far Peter Capaldi has come from the unpleasant guy of Series Eight.  Or possibly we’re just ignoring it; they didn’t have to write him that way in the first place, and they just twisted him 180 degrees afterwards.  His era was consequently all over the place.  But he’s a ferociously good actor, and while the mean stuff was a bad fit for the Doctor, those pricklier moments were always interesting to watch.  (Look at Dark Water when he coldly ignores Clara’s threats, or Face The Raven when he brutally snaps at Ashildr, or any time he smiles, looking like a dinosaur on the hunt.)  Capaldi has always been better than the material, sometimes sailing above it (“I am the Doctor and this is my spoon”), but Twice Upon A Time doesn’t give him enough to deliver anything heart-rending.  A vague moral wobble complete with standard issue terrible jokes (“You’re the very first Dalek to get naked for me”) and a handful of good ones (“I assumed I’d get… younger.”  “I am younger!”), it’s as empty and twee as its title.  So long, Angry Eyebrows.  We’ll always have Heaven Sent.  And toodle-oo, Moffat.  Cheers for the good episodes.

Over to you, Chris and Jodie, for the one bit of the episode people will be talking about for the next year.  What of the new guy?  (Gal.  Person.  The new Doctor, right, there we are.)  Jodie Whittaker makes a likeably goony face on seeing her reflection, which some have taken to point us in a David Tennant direction, but her first words are about as inspiring as Capaldi’s last: “Oh, brilliant!”  (Hey, at least we’re spared the “I’ve-got-new-[blank]” gag, but this is still barely above a pleased grunt.)  The scene itself is such a repeat you could call it a parody: the TARDIS crashes again, this time with the Doctor falling out of it.  So that’s every New Who regeneration, plus the opening of The Eleventh Hour, with less grip?  Would it be possible, once in a while, for something else to happen during a regeneration?  But let’s leave the fears of unoriginality to Series 11, with the appropriate ducking and covering that entails.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #55 – Decalog 2: Lost Property edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

Doctor Who: Decalog 2: Lost Property
Edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

It’s that time again!  Collecting a gaggle of authors, some you’ll know from the New and Missing Adventures, others who for whatever reason only show up for the short stories, Decalog 2: Lost Property differs from its predecessor in one obvious way: there’s no linking story.  And hooray, since the first Decalog had an almighty task stringing tales together with another one on top, only to end up adding useless links between them.  This time, it’s just a theme of the Doctor’s home.  That seems like a good enough excuse to collect a bunch of short stories, and it could lead to some interesting places.  Such as…

*

Vortex Of Fear
by Gareth Roberts

As with the first Decalog, we begin with the Second Doctor.  Gareth Roberts delivers a surprisingly dark vignette about a hotel suspended in the time vortex, where you can exist just long enough to evade certain tax laws.  The TARDIS bumps into it and the Doctor and co. get out to investigate, only to find a complicated paradox playing out ad infinitum.  It doesn’t exactly dwell on the subject of home; a reference to the vortex being where the Doctor belongs is sufficiently throwaway that it could have been added later.

This works really well as a short piece, as the premise is something that is naturally going to repeat itself and so probably shouldn’t outstay its welcome.  Roberts has an immediate handle on the characters, from the Doctor’s scruffy busy-bodying to Jamie’s keenness not to be shown up.  Zoe is developed nicely, with her photographic memory and logical mind troubled by the shifting world they find themselves in.  When the Doctor determines there’s no real hope for these people as it’s a closed, deteriorating loop, he just leaves them to it.  As a commentary on this seemingly bewildered Doctor’s darker side, it’s a lot more effective than The Menagerie, where he just causes deaths through befuddlement; it’s still surprisingly callous, even if he is affronted at people mucking about with the time vortex, or by the general air of decadence pervading the hotel.  (Darker still, Zoe figures out that since this is a paradox loop a version of them will always be there.  Yikes.)  For good measure, the nefarious sniping between the guests is written with colour and bile, the characterisation of the main trio is enjoyably apt, and Roberts gets in a jolly good Pat-and-Frazer double entendre at the start.

*

The Crimson Dawn
by Tim Robins

Well you can’t fault his ambition.  This has a fight for Ice Warrior rights on Mars, a sinister agenda to undermine it, a traitor, a monstrous lab-grown figurehead whose entire life has been a delusion based on The War Of The Worlds, a huge revelation about Ice Warrior history/a plot resolution bundled onto the last page and heaps of satire on commercialism.  (Also, rather originally, barely any Ice Warriors.)  I’ll bet this was an idea for a full novel; you could certainly stagger it out a bit.  All of which happened the last time we saw Tim Robins.  Just commission the dude and be done with it.

Thanks to the time constraint, it’s all a bit frantic and farcical – sometimes deliberately, as the Doctor and K9 zoom away from armed guards, the robot dog blasting away at them as he reverses at full speed.  The action is in technicolour, and the tone (looking at you, War Of The Worlds bit) rather goofy.  For something allegedly out of Season 14 or 15, it’s a bit too silly.  I wonder if Robins was really thinking of the Douglas Adams era: “My arms!  My legs!  My everything!”  And speaking of eras, there are probably too many continuity references; big fans of Mire Beasts will give a little cheer.  All two of them.

But never mind all that: it’s only ruddy Leela!  In what is, for all I know, her only appearance in a Virgin book, she displays all the obvious violence and lack of civilisation you’d expect, but little of the questing intelligence that makes her really special.  I suspect we needed a Leela renaissance when Big Finish came along, if she was once looked down on by fandom.  That might explain her absence from these books; there’s a note of parody about her, of “Can you believe this was once the companion?!”  And K9, who showed up considerably after Leela, is referred to as the Doctor’s best friend!

The satire is a little heavy-handed, as we tour the commercialised regions of Mars including a Mars Bar (oof!), a dessert called an Achocalypse Now, and the sad revelation that Peladon has undergone a financial crisis that “forced the Pels to turn their monarchy into a toiletry franchise”.  That stuff’s not a million miles from the quirks of Transit, so there’s a precedent, but Robins still must have been in an odd mood when he wrote this.  Oh, and the Doctor’s “home” in this is a flying houseboat.  Not so much exploring a theme there as picking a noun out of a hat.  (It’s all about the Martians’ home, I suppose, but if so doesn’t that get the theme slightly wrong?)  Altogether it’s an odd, madcap jumble.

*

Where The Heart Is
by Andy Lane

Few Doctors are as concerned with their home as the Third, who would hate to admit he belonged on Earth.  Andy Lane attacks this sideways, never outright saying the Doctor belongs here but focusing on the home of the UNIT Family instead, which he helped build and which, of course, belongs to him.  It also plugs a continuity gap that has never occurred to me: how UNIT suddenly ended up with a country house for its headquarters.  But don’t worry about it disappearing into fanwank, despite the plethora of references.

Lane puts the Brigadier in a tight spot when UNIT’s funding dries up and the government threatens to hand the whole thing over to the Marines.  The Doctor and Jo have captured a flamboyant alien masquerading as a doctor (draw your own inference!), and despite its murderous crimes it may be able to help.  The writing is sublimely character-based, particularly as the Brigadier stares an uncertain future in the face and the Doctor (in a testy mood) tries to get one over on him by capturing the alien as easily as possible.  Both characters are fleshed out more convincingly in 20 pages than The Ghosts Of N-Space managed in an entire novel.  Jo’s determination and shortcomings are also brought spiritedly to life.

This is short, sweet and does a clever job with the theme.  A highlight.

*

The Trials Of Tara
by Paul Cornell

“I want to do a sequel to The Androids Of Tara,” said Paul Cornell at one time, presumably.  “In iambic pentameter.  Guest starring the Kandyman.”  Well if you’re not hooked already, what else can I say?

Mind you, I can barely tell iambic pentameter from balsamic vinegar, and I have a naturally sulky dislike for all things Shakespeare, so when I saw that The Trials Of Tara really was going to be like that for all of its fifty pages I groaned in horror.  But I soon forgot any objections as Paul Cornell indulged in Shakespeare references even I get, as well as some delightfully nerdy in-jokes about Holmesian double-acts, a jaunty plot that doesn’t just repeat the original story and – of course – Bernice Summerfield absolutely knocking it out of the park.  One moment where she realises she’s cocked up her delivery and it completely implodes in a single stanza made me hoot.  That, and the Kandyman frustratedly brushing off a bewitched lover.

It’s one of those where you could spend so long listing fun little moments, you just end up reading the thing out.  In summary, it’s easily as demented as it sounds.   Despite its poetic leanings it feels like an outlet for Paul Cornell’s love of panto – bawdy jokes and all – and that’s no bad thing if you’re in the right mood.  It zooms along, every bit as sugary as the Kandyman and just as brilliantly odd.

*

Housewarming
by David A. McIntee

Meh.  Housewarming ought to drum up a bit of atmosphere at least, being set in an apparently haunted house over a short time.  David A. McIntee drops in as many gnarly adjectives as he can find, as ever, but he makes the odd decision to overpopulate it and frequently chop between his characters.  It’s consequently difficult to build anything up and none of the guest characters stand out.

Sarah and K9 are a welcome addition to the book world – I’m not sure I needed a sequel to K9 & Company, or K9 & Company for that matter, but you could at least improve on it.  Alas, it stars Mike Yates.  Has he ever been very interesting?   They’re all reasonably characterised, apart from a slightly too excited Pertwee-ish sword-fight that frantically tries to liven things up at the end.  It nevertheless finishes with a damp squib and makes the villain (spoilers) look a bit small potatoes, although that’s not a new experience for them.  Of ghostly terror, there is none.

The plot’s small and simple and it holds together, but while I really ought to go “Ooh!” at the surprise reveal, it’s not enough of a surprise to warrant it.

*

The Nine-Day Queen
by Matthew Jones

I only know Matthew Jones from his New Who story The Impossible Planet, but it’s an open secret that Russell T Davies wrote most of the finished product, so I guess this is a first.  Based on The Nine-Day Queen he’s got a knack for characters, and the ending is something else, but overall it falls into some familiar traps.

First, this is a bigger story than just 30 pages: an important first scene aboard the TARDIS is summarised, and months fly by like turned pages.  The pace is absolutely crazy for a Hartnell story in particular, with things like the reader’s knowledge of history being expediently assumed.  Second, following on from that, this type of story – a historical period beset by a special effects-y alien influence – is quite unlike the Hartnell era.  You’d never have got this particular kind of sci-fi/history mash up, the more roundabout Time Meddler notwithstanding.

Still, Jones makes it sound just about right.  The destructive Vrij is affecting history, which could mean Jane Grey lives longer than history allows, but will spell disaster for the future; this leads to some very traditional worrying about what all that means.  (Then again, the idea that it can happen goes against what that era said and even underlined – that it cannot happen!)  Barbara’s knowledge and concern shine through, and the Doctor’s complicated and irascible nature are ultimately betrayed by his sympathy for Jane, all of which rings true.  (See Cameca and the brooch.)  Ian imitates the Doctor in a fun scene, winning over a couple of guards with sheer confidence, though admittedly he doesn’t do a lot else.  And the unseen TARDIS bit might sound completely batty – Barbara losing her mind and strangling Ian – but it’s something we’ve more or less seen in The Edge Of Destruction.  (As for the rather odd bit where the Doctor insists CPR might do him fatal harm, uh, I guess we didn’t know one way or the other back then?)

There are numerous good bits, but the story is at its best on the final page when (spoiler) the Doctor helps Jane achieve some dignity in death.  That’s a heart and a darkness you’d expect from McCoy, which effortlessly works for Hartnell.  On the flip side, apart from another throwaway use of the theme, i.e. the Doctor owned a house once (gee, really pushing the boat out!), there’s that frenzied short-story-in-name-only approach.  This is possibly best evidenced at the start, in the by-line beneath the epigraph: Barbara Chesterton.

*

Lonely Days
by Daniel Blythe

This one at least feels like a short story, as it has a much smaller focus.   The TARDIS drops in on an asteroid/planet the Doctor owns (Daniel Blythe interchanges the two words – annoying!), where it finds a lonely worker going slightly mad, and a planet (let’s stick with that) undergoing changes.  There’s also a hint of a ghost story to do with the hologram of a woman he (Sebastian) once knew.

The writing is at its best when Sebastian is pottering about on his little world, thinking he’s seeing things.  As the plot progresses his moods and actions get weirder, all of which is somewhat nullified when it turns out there’s just been a breakdown in communication.  Still, you can believe it wouldn’t take much to push this man to randomly pull a gun on strangers.

The regulars are more problematic.   Nyssa is mostly fine, apart from an odd bit where she seems eager to mess with time in order to test the laws of gambling.  (?)  The Fifth Doctor is way off.  Somewhat irreverent, at one point apologising individually to some plants, namedropping the death of Adric just to make a trivial point and coming out with general bursts of eccentricity, this just isn’t him.  (Although I could forgive Blythe for wanting to liven him up a bit.)  The whole concept of him owning a planet is rather bizarre, but then Craig Hinton wrote a novel about him owning a restaurant, which made about as much sense.

Latterly there’s an attempt to underscore it all with Nyssa’s loneliness after her father’s death, but that seems like an afterthought.  Despite that and a melancholy ending where two lonely souls learn to co-exist, it’s a bit of a non-event.

*

People Of The Trees
by Pam Baddeley

Well look at that – Bonus Leela!  Newcomer Pam Baddeley is another one taking the “home” theme literally, as the Doctor revisits some land he once bought (in order to protect the indigenous people) which is under threat again.  The theft of ancient statues is putting the “People” in danger, but the Doctor will soon need to barter the remaining statue for Leela’s life.

The idea of a civilisation that revolves completely around acquiring and protecting land is a good one for the theme, and it adds an unusual motive to the Dascarians, who don’t give a fig about the tree-dwelling primitives they’re endangering.  The plot is the right sort of size and the writing is quietly clever, adapting equally well to the People and the Dascarians.  The Fourth Doctor is in a more pensive, respectful mood than his earlier story, and Leela... well, I’m still not convinced the writers of the time knew what to do with her other than act like an overbearing bodyguard with a pocket full of Janis thorns, but she’s less a figure of fun here, and she’s in good company with the trusting tree folk.

It’s not spectacular, but I liked it well enough.

*

Timeshare
by Vanessa Bishop

Over at Big Finish, the Sixth Doctor didn’t so much evolve as hire a drastic new PR guy.  “Old Sixie” is the cuddly uncle of Doctors, his Peri-strangling days buried beneath wistful monologues and Evelyn’s chocolate cakes.  If you’ve got used to all that, Timeshare might be a bit bracing.  This is original, unsweetened Doctor Six; about as gentle as a lorry reversing in the middle of Swan Lake.

Discovering a mysterious set of coordinates and refusing to believe Peri has read them correctly, the TARDIS arrives by a timeshare flat – only it’s a time-travelling arrangement outlawed by the Time Lords.  It begins to malfunction, in a way weirdly reminiscent of the earlier Homecoming, due to the Doctor putting too much money in the meter.  It’s a bit of a farce, which somewhat suits this Doctor’s blustery nature.

Even so, there are a few issues with this.  The Sixth Doctor giving both barrels at Peri is an acquired taste – you begin to wonder what she’s getting out of it – and the two of them can get annoying.  The comedy is a little much, particularly when another Time Lord appears with a small collection of random idiosyncrasies, just to dole out some exposition.  Despite generous amounts of effort, I never fully understood how the timeshare worked.  And the story’s a little long, especially when time “echoes” start to repeat and repeat.

But the writing occasionally suggests that Peri does find her companion endearing, and his flaws – such as trying a little too hard to catch his own reflection – do ring true to the era.  It’s probably a good idea for a story, unknowingly mixing Vortex Of Fear with Homecoming, but it could maybe have been shorter and clearer.  It’s all about a fun getaway being dragged out for too long and then becoming a mess, and well, now that you mention it...

*

Question Mark Pyjamas
by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

If you made it all the way through the last nine stories thinking “This is all well and good, but what about the House on Allen Road?”, you’re in luck.  In a surprising and canny move, that’s the “home” to round off this collection.   Back we go to another time, when it was the Doctor, Benny and Ace.  (I get a kick out of that being in the past, as ripe for a revisit as any old Doctor.)  They find the Doctor’s residence on an asteroid, in a “Heritage Centre” of stolen homes that strangely mirrors the book’s overall theme.  That’s nice work.

Quite soon the Doctor and co. are unwilling exhibits, living out a strange domestic life in “Allen Road” with Bernice and Ace as his wife and daughter.  They plot an escape and it plays out somewhat amusingly, with perhaps a few too many references sprinkled on top, not all relevant.

It’s fun to be nostalgic about the New Adventures, and sure enough Ace takes a moment to remember some of the upsetting things that have happened to her, including helpfully placing this after No Future.   (PS: did you know she has mummy issues?)   That’s pretty much all it sets out to do, but the humour is winningly strange – Russell T Davies would love the bit about “We only had the atmosphere fitted a few days ago” – and there’s a lovely observation that aboard the TARDIS, every morning feels like a lie-in

My only real gripe is almost an achievement: could Robert Perry and Mike Tucker be the first writers not to get the appeal of Bernice Summerfield?   She likes archaeology and wine, but only in a dry, tick-things-off-a-list way.  Her effervescent wit, the thing that makes her jump off the page, just isn’t happening for once.  It’s hardly a new experience for Bernice to get nothing to do, especially with Ace around, but the contrast has never been quite so black and white.

Apart from that it’s a colourful trip to the recent past, and a nice send off for Decalog 2.

*

My main gripes about Decalog were writers not knowing a short story from a novel summary, and the awkward linking theme.  Decalog 2 still has lapses on the first front; I kind of wish they’d get Tim Robins to do something full length just to see if it helps.  But these stories are mostly well suited to the quicker pace, and some – Trials in particular – really make it count.  As for the theme, while there’s nothing as unwieldy as a running plot, it’s a little uncanny how many writers took it literally or just tossed it in there as a garnish.  But I suppose it’s a hard theme to tackle, as they’re dealing with a lifelong nomad.  (Odd that nobody wrote about the TARDIS, the obvious winner.)

It’s best to remember the theme is just an excuse for ten stories.  As a collection, it’s a colourful improvement.

7/10

See you again for 56–60, beginning with Zamper by Gareth Roberts...

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #54 – The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#12
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
By Christopher Bulis

Sci-fi and fantasy, together again.  Again.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t the first Virgin book to smush these genres together, let alone the first bit of Doctor Who.  Witch Mark did it ages ago, more recently so did The Menagerie (more or less).  As you can guess if you’ve read my reviews, it’s not something I tend to go crazy for.

I like sci-fi, obviously.  And I like fantasy well enough, but since it usually manifests as quasi-historical-with-added-dragons, or Bargain Bin Tolkien, I’m generally happier with a comedic version.  Stick the two together and you usually get something too humdrum for fantasy or too silly for sci-fi.  But you’ve got to poke the fourth wall a bit if you’re going to make the comparison, which is why comedy is a good fit, so there’s some promise.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is sort of critical of its fantasy tropes, but mostly in that way where you take a fantasy thing and just explain it with a sci-fi thing.  Well done and everything, but since it’s all flim-flam, have you really put fantasy in its place?

New Who is an absolute sod for this.  Ghosts?  Try ethereal aliens.  Werewolves?  More like alien werewolves.  As for vampires, uh… space fish?  These things don’t suddenly become more interesting when you use a different kind of made up thing to explain them.  (Or come to that, when you explain them at all.)  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice drops our heroes into an obviously fantastical world, complete with fire-breathing dragons and wizards, immediately gives all of it the sceptical stink-eye and then spends ages building up to what is, when all’s said and done, a cod science explanation just as straightforward and typical as the fantasy one.  Of course there’s some kind of mega technological thingummie at the heart of Avalon, powering the wizards and helping the dragons to fly.  All that does is make the fantasy world seem more ordinary – especially since this is Doctor Who and not The Lord Of The Rings, so you’re totally expecting it to go that way.  Besides, it’s not even as if peppering a (pseudo) historical world with technology is a novel experience, what with virtually every Doctor Who story set in history since the 1970s doing precisely that.

Part of the reason I’m so unreceptive to all this, apart from having gone through much the same song and dance in Witch Mark, is the writing.  I’ve enjoyed Christopher Bulis’ books in the past, more so than most with Shadowmind.  I thought that was well paced and quite witty with its mind-control plot; I also found State Of Change refreshing and pithy, especially in its historical back-biting.  But there’s no such wit here.  After yet another What The Hell Was All That About prologue, Bulis introduces the regulars with all the finesse of Terrance Dicks novelising at 3am.  Hope and apprehension mingled on [Barbara’s] concerned, intelligent, strong-featured face, crowned by her bouffant of dark hair.  She was wearing a simple loose jumper and slacks, with sensible flat shoes, having already learned the value of practical dress when travelling with the Doctor.  Spot the bit where that stopped being relevant?  Are there Bingo cards for us to match up all the relevant bits of her outfit?

He gets into an even greater detail-obsessed lather later on, describing the hell out of a banquet.  Hey, atmosphere’s great and all, but it can feel like there’s going to be a test afterwards.  The writing in general is of the serviceable, then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened variety.  It’s fine, in other words, but “fine” is not going to propel you enthusiastically through 300 pages.

Quite soon we meet the fantasy denizens of Avalon, including (but not limited to) an elderly wizard, a benevolent King and his dutiful Queen, an evil wizard (aka the sorcerer’s apprentice), a heroic knight, a scrappy dwarf, a supercilious elf, a mystical leprechaun and a grotty witch.  Every single one of them acts just as you’d expect, and while the book does eventually produce an excuse for this, and for the narrative following the archetypes of fantasy like seriously co-dependant tracing paper, that doesn’t transmogrify the schlocky obvious bits into shiny new ones.  We also cut back and forth to some spaceships in orbit, where the people sound equally fresh and interesting.  If you’ve seen an episode of Star Trek, you can fill in the dialogue.

I wonder how much of this is just the result of mixing two genres, not to mention bunging four regular characters on top: it’s inevitably going to spread a bit thin.  Before long you’ve got the Doctor and Ian questing with Sir Bron, the Unsurprisingly Brave, and his (as Ian points out!) Lord Of The Rings tribute band; Barbara, injured and stuck in the castle with a King, Queen and wizard, researching the problem and hunting out a spy; Susan and Princess Mellisa kidnapped by the nefarious Marton Dhal, and stuck in another castle; the people up in space tightening their grip on the planet below, planning to steal its mythical technologies; various crewmen sent to Avalon for just that purpose; and at one point, a curiously intelligent cat sneaking about.  (There’s also a bunch of knights staking out Castle Dhal, hoping to rescue the princess, but we mercifully ignore them.)  Bulis is soon chopping and changing like his keyboard’s getting a bit hot, and since every main character or setting has to accommodate its own batch of smaller characters, there isn’t enough interesting stuff to go around.  The closest anybody gets to being memorable is the witch, who arrives far too late and inevitably encroaches on Pratchett territory just because he’s written the hell out of witches already.  (I didn’t particularly mind Dhal, obvious as he is, but I think that’s because I decided that’s the sort of part Philip Madoc would have played.  I had fun imagining him glowering at everybody.)

The regulars are true to themselves, and goodness knows I’m glad it’s them.  This is my favourite era of the show – I’m still convinced they should never have sacrificed the unpredictability of the TARDIS – but Verity Lambert and co. are rather more to thank for that.  Bulis at least plays up the oddness and cleverness of Susan, and gives the Doctor some imperious little victories and a nifty costume change.  (Hartnell would surely have approved.)  Barbara suffers a bit from “Go and get the useful guest character” syndrome while Ian, on a boat full of mystics and warriors, seems pretty redundant for much of it, but then none of that’s too far off the mark.  They sometimes had to make do with tiny subplots on the telly.

One thing I did like – I didn’t expect to slate it, but here we are! – was the continuity between books.  This follows on from the world of Original Sin, with Earth’s Empire in tatters and plenty of humans, particularly the avaricious ones in orbit, at a loss.  Presented with the might-as-well-be-magic technology of Avalon, they have the opportunity to rebuild what they’ve lost.  This is very neatly done: if you haven’t read Original Sin you could just take it on the chin that Earth is in a state, and if you have it’s a clever little twist to follow it up with William Hartnell and co.  Mixing up time and space like that is a very Doctor Who thing to do, and nicely illustrates just how all over the place the Doctor’s travels can be.  (It’s also a neat little Easter egg if you happen to be reading every single buggering one of them.)

Also, keeping my charitable (wizard’s) hat wedged on for a moment, much of the fantasy stuff is perfectly serviceable.  There’s an encounter with sea monsters, an attack by flying monkeys (!), obviously the scene on the cover with the dragon, flying broomsticks, and a climactic battle between wizard, witch, leprechaun, Doctor and all manner of zoomy, flashy things.  It ticks those boxes all right – with, of course, conventionally exploding sci-fi stuff on the periphery.  It just uses an excuse, however plot-relevant it might be, to never exceed your expectations with any of it.

While it’s hardly a surprise, since I read half of it years before this marathon and couldn’t be bothered to finish until now, it’s still a bit odd being on the other side of fan consensus.  Christopher Bulis is generally quite unpopular in fan circles, but to look at the reviews, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice did well.  I can’t tell anyone they’re wrong for liking it, but it didn’t work for me.  It’s never an egregiously bad read, and in a way that makes it more of a slog: when you read and read these things, the very good is intoxicating, the very bad is at least interesting, but there’s no burning desire to read anything that’s ordinary.  I’m sorry to say, a dutiful load of fantasy archetypes rubbing shoulders with stock sci-fi stuff is very much in the latter category.

5/10

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #53 – Sky Pirates! by Dave Stone

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#40
Sky Pirates!
By Dave Stone

Oh no, not Dave Stone.  In the modest annals of New Adventures discussion, no author is discussed with as many awkward sidelong glances or nervous fidgets as this one.  To read the reviews you’d think he was a one-man marmite factory, a purveyor of books so bizarre they’re not so much “written down” as “mashed into existence with fists dabbed haphazardly in hundreds and thousands and mud”.

As it happens I’ve felt like that for years: my first experience of a New Adventure (and possibly my first Doctor Who book) was a Dave Stone.  I’ve owned Death And Diplomacy for decades (plural – Jesus!), and I dimly remember the bewilderment of trying to read it.  Just what the hell is this, anyway?  Who are those people on the cover?  Where are the Daleks?  I was still working through all of David J Howe’s non-fiction books at the time and oh, dear lord, those endless lists of things from Doctor Who… bliss!  I really enjoyed learning about it all and, as you might have guessed, wasn’t so hot on going outside and doing things, so Dave Stone’s solitary New Adventure, with its somewhat adult humour and reams of weird stuff made absolutely no sense to me.  It still might not when I get to it later.  Fingers crossed.

But before all that, there’s Sky Pirates!  And oh boy.  I’m almost grateful for all the hushed, couched “Careful, now”s from kind fellow readers, as none of that prepared me for such a good book.  Stand down red alert!  Sky Pirates! is properly good and fun and written in totally comprehensible words!  Well, mostly.  But if anything, it’s better written than most of the books in the range.

Yes, it’s a bit bizarre at times, if not constantly.  There’s whimsy encrusted in its DNA.  You don’t get “Chapter One”, you get “The First Chapter”; you don’t get song lyrics at the start of each section, you get bad jokes (mostly courtesy of Bernice Summerfield); the narrator is someone transcribing it long after the fact, though they keep a merciful enough distance to be both amusing in their own right and a barely noticeable, not at all insufferable device, as they could have been; the language is florid and considered and dense, such that you sometimes need to take a few runs at a sentence, but all that extra detail is colourful and fun – so what if you begin to suspect that with all the bizarre ideas and bubbling befoulments it contains, if you dropped Sky Pirates! from a good enough height, it would splat?

Even so, I can’t help thinking people get a bit over-excited about it.  That’s not to denigrate the book – as must be obvious, it’s one that I liked – but to pinch a bit of Douglas Adams, well, it’s just this book, y’know?  Dave Stone hasn’t written anything as incomprehensible as Time’s Crucible or Strange England.  Sure, some of the words maybe don’t super duper exist, but he carries them off so well and makes it all so enjoyable that I didn’t have the nerve to question them, or any of the typos, of which there may have been one or two.  Unless that’s a gag, which it might well be.  Put simply, this one knows what he’s doing.

He’s often been compared, much to his chagrin (according to the Discontinuity Guide), with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.  I can see what the comparisons are getting at, and also why he might roll his eyes.  There are many New (and some Missing) Adventures that wear their influences on their sleeve, because after all they’re written by lovely, well-intentioned, mostly na├»ve young writers.  Sky Pirates! creates worlds filled with grimy and unpleasant people a bit like how Terry Pratchett does it, and plays havoc with physics and good manners a little in the style of Douglas Adams, but he also has his own style.  There’s an anarchic quality to it, a shaggy dog quality to the story a little like (but more focussed than) Adams, and the sense of humour – intrinsic to Adams and Pratchett – never veers as close to outright satire as either of them.  Sky Pirates! is a fantastical sci-fi comedy with many funny ideas, but it isn’t half as concerned with avatars for real world things.  I love that in said (more famous) authors, but I greatly enjoyed the absence of it here.  One aspect I’ve seen gently criticised is the book’s take on religion (it’s not a major fan), which also draws it towards the parallel-evolution jibes of Pratchett, but I found it quite harmless and somewhat open minded and far less This Is Like That Thing, You Know, That One than Pratchett.  In any case, I’ve read worse takes.  (Looking at you, St. Anthony’s Fire.)

Stone has a reputation (see above, etc.) for writing very silly stuff, and while there’s plenty of that, it’s far from the only ingredient.  Take the Sloathes: amoral shape-shifting tentacle-ish blob-ish things, they honestly believe they’re the only really living things in the cosmos (and all other life is “pretending to move”) and exist to gluttonously collect and consume.  They look like a variety of utterly ridiculous things and some of them talk in an outlandish and silly way.  But they’re also a source of immense creativity, and as the book goes on the other characters realise they’re much more reflective than evil, and might actually be examples of absolute, malleable promise, waiting for the right encouragement.  The various crewmen of the Schirron Dream, the piratical ship that inspires the title, are a bit of a random assortment collected from the various planets of the bizarre (and therefore rather Sloathe-like) System, but the main two – nefarious Nathan Li Shao and warrior woman Leetha – develop considerably as the book goes on.  (Their story sort of goes where you’re expecting, but Stone refrains from rubbing it in, which is a relief.)  Admittedly some of the more minor ones are much more minor, sadly including the second-in-command Kiru.  The crew also seem to pick up new people between adventures, which stretches characterisation a bit.

The whole “pirate” side of the story really only gets going around halfway, which ought to be a criticism, and yet I can’t complain about the stuff that happened before.  The System, a sun surrounded by four diverse planets and assorted planetary bits, is falling apart: Planet X, home of the Sloathes, has thrown the natural decline into overdrive, devastating worlds and peoples.  The TARDIS is ensnared by an ancient horror from the Time Lords’ past (oh hi, cheeky bit of mythology) and the Doctor and Bernice are separated from Roz and Chris.  The former find themselves with Leetha on the dank space station-esque world of Sere, scarcely aware of Leetha’s quest to save the System; the latter are trapped in a Sloathe hell on Planet X.  Both situations are rife with detail and colour: Bernice observes Sere and becomes convinced the place is about to fall apart, while Roz lives through a bizarre drug-addiction and struggles to stay alive amid her terrifying, ridiculous captors.  In the middle of all this, the quest to find the Eyes – one gem per planet, which united may save the System – is suitably at the back of everybody’s mind that it sort of recalls the quest for the Ultimate Question, so I suppose that’s another Douglas Adams echo if you’re looking for one.

It’s the confident juggling of silliness, richness and thought that really made it for me.  While I needed a few goes to make absolute sense of Planet X, it was completely worth it, as their bizarre and preposterous dialogue leapt off the page.  Leetha’s world falls into chaos as she makes her way to save it, and this is unquestionably a time of tragedy, yet Stone turns a mystic ritual to “discover” Leetha (and so prove she is The Chosen One) into a heartbreakingly pathetic game of Hide And Seek.  (I was giggling for ages at that bit.)  Later, when Stone gives into the perhaps inevitable impulse to revisit the ancient horror from Time Lord history and make it the focus of the denouement, the Doctor really comes into focus, after being written brilliantly as someone who can fade into the background at will and be convincingly ridiculous or serious.  His sheer conviction when he faces “the thing inside”, the being behind it all, hefts more weight onto what could, at a glance, look like a daft jaunt around some goofy planets on a weirdo spaceship.  This is the Doctor at his most grave, struggling against the innate violence of his people and himself.  (Which neatly echoes the Doctor and Pryce’s discussion about murder in Original Sin, deliberately or otherwise.)  Bernice shows light and shade throughout, with perhaps more emphasis on shade: she’s utterly cynical about the Doctor at times, as she’s got a bee in her bonnet that he’s doing one of his “stand back and manipulate” jobs on the whole affair.  She has every reason to be suspicious: we know, as she does, that the man quaintly pottering about the kitchen in a chef’s hat is not what he seems.

There is, I suppose, a feeling that Chris and Roz are bundled into a subplot, as you might expect right after they’re introduced.  It’s hard to pinpoint if this is a “good” Roz and Chris book, as they’re in such completely alien surroundings compared with Original Sin.  However, Stone convincingly handles inter-novel continuity so it feels like he’s at least read the one before, and the story eventually takes the stance of putting them through the wringer to see if this is even something they want to do.  It’s meant to leave them a bit bleary-eyed.  It’s not a Roz-and-Chris-apalooza, especially on the Chris side, but nor is it a betrayal of either of them.  I enjoyed their story.

As far as other criticisms go, there is a sense of cutting bits and briskly accelerating the pace after halfway, but it’s a long-ish book by New Adventures standards, so I get why the quest to find each Eye becomes truncated: one is a deliberate and hilarious anti-climax related after the fact by Bernice.  Again, what could be a problem (and maybe is) is tackled head on and then smartly juggled.  Along with other bits, like the too-numerous crew, it’s not perfect.  And yet reading Sky Pirates!, I never got over the sheer delight of a fully-realised author.  I’ve read some very good books since Genesys, and discovered some fabulous authors like Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane, but let’s face it, there’s a higher proportion of dross.  There have been times when Sky Pirates! would seem like the first two-eyed monkey swaggering into a one-eyed tribe.

To sum up: don’t panic.  Sky Pirates! is as fruitsome and odd as some of the other really good comedic sci-fi novels you’ve read, including (and perhaps especially) ones that aren’t Doctor Who.  It’s also good Doctor Who, and if it sometimes seems to go on a bit, take your time.  I’m still not certain I understood every word, and I honestly don’t mind.  Call it an excuse to come back.

9/10

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #52 – System Shock by Justin Richards

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#11
System Shock
By Justin Richards

Throughout this one I couldn’t help thinking of Futurama.  Just after Fry wakes up bleary-eyed in the Year 3000, a mischievous guy at the cryogenics lab keeps the lights off and bellows at him, “Welcome… TO THE WORRRRLD OF TOMORROWWWWW!

Brace yourself, gentle reader from 1995.  Can your imagination withstand the horror that is… 1998?

It’s actually quite novel of System Shock to look so near ahead, and even more so to use the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane in the story.  Beloved and quintessentially 1970s characters, there’s fun to be had in marooning Sarah in a near, yet technologically different time.  (The Doctor, of course, fits anywhere.)  It’s not the same as her arriving in the past, or in the Year 3000, or on an unrecognisable alien world.  She’s in the same place, but just out of step enough to be completely lost.  It brings home how quickly these things change.

Indeed, by the time actual 1998 rolled around things weren’t exactly how Justin Richards envisaged.  The internet (no need for that capital I or N, bless!) had a much greater hold, and mobile phones were getting ubiquitous; far more so than the occasional cursory reference to a “cellphone” here.  This, of course, is not the author’s fault – he’s writing a novel, not mapping the future!  (And anyway, he’s too prescient about 24 hour news and online shopping.)  But you risk dating your story when you make such a fuss about modern technology, hence movies like Hackers drawing giggles from smart audiences, and System Shock’s many references to “information superhighways” getting chortles from me.

Richards (unlike Hackers) obviously knows what he’s talking about, dropping plenty of detail into the computer stuff, rolling his eyes at his own IT background in the blurb, and even opening the book with a programmer’s joke.  (The prologue is “If…”, and shows us a world going to hell because of technology; the story that follows is “Then…”)  However, revolving System Shock around the perils of computer chips and the limitless capabilities of a humble CD (!) gives us something that probably worked very well in 1995, but not so much beyond.  Besides which, Self-Aware Technology That Kills You may be as old an idea as technology itself.  It had certainly done the rounds by 1995.

System Shock opens with a series of exciting set-pieces.  After the dramatic If… prologue, a man is kidnapped in a car park; a car seemingly comes to life and crashes, killing the head of MI5; a terrorist siege comes to an end thanks to the SAS and their mysterious planning program, BattleNet; and a man on the run for his life slips a CD into the Doctor’s pocket before being murdered, thus entangling the Doctor and Sarah in this chain of events.  Despite following the heady action movie heights of The Seeds Of Doom (no, really!), the Doctor and Sarah look as out of place in all this as they do in the ’90s.  Also it’s worth noting that all of these events are in the first flurry of pages… as well as the first paragraph of the blurb.  A fast-paced action adventure it may want to be, but it isn’t for very long, as we discover the part-robot-part-lizard Voracians are posing as terrorists in order to control Hubway (a country house / information hub), and the majority of the book is a hostage situation therein.  The potential for world-changing techno-disaster is kept mostly to a few asides; Sarah gets stuck with the hostages and the Doctor tip-toes through the house outsmarting the Voracians.  For most of it, the baddies make their plans and the Doctor frowns at a few monitors, but it never has the corkscrew tension of The Man Who Knew Too Much or (more relevant for its hilariously out-of-date tech) Enemy Of The State, both of which it resembles with the fatefully pocketed CD.  The story gets into such an SAS funk in its second half that, while intermittently exciting, it’s actually rather dull.

I often wondered why a thriller (that happens to be dressed up like Doctor Who) should be such a slow read.  Partly it could be the subject matter – computers and programs and CDs, oh my! – which I simply don’t find fascinating.  More importantly, I suspect it’s the characters.  Excepting the regulars, almost nobody stands out.  One of the hostages, the Duchess of Glastonbury, shines a little like Amelia Rumford in Seeds Of Doom, aka a charming bit character who gleefully courts danger to help her new friends.  There are loads of other hostages / bit parts, mostly male, few with any colour.  A few of the Voracians – who as well as being lizards and robots are also masquerading as humans – have (understandable!) identity issues.  There are too many of them, however, and the point Richards is trying to make with them speaking in a kind of meaningless business-babble, i.e. humanity-not-included, doesn’t work as intended.  System Shock isn’t a particularly funny book, so having a large number of characters talk dryly all the time just looks like a lack of colour.  The prose occasionally falls into the same trap, tediously relishing the brand of car or type of gun a character is using, or getting way too carried away with the authentic techno-speak: “The first chip to trigger into operation was at Hampstead.  It had been connected to the central processor of the output control systems of the electricity substation.  With Theatre Of War and with this, Richards is good at writing what he knows, and with meting out the relevant details; it just isn’t always fascinating to read.

Where System Shock works best, outside those well-executed early bits of action, is with the regulars.  An authentic Fourth Doctor is always a delight to read, and Richards has him pegged, from the nonchalance in the face of doom to the moments of sudden gravitas.  He’s hilarious pitted against the generally emotionless Voracians, adept at getting out of trouble with a yoyo or with a reasoned diatribe, and he runs rings around their computer system of doom, Voractyll, just by talking to it for long enough.  He’s also quick to call Sarah his best friend.  Their rapport is mostly suggested, as they are predictably split up when she goes undercover, but Richards has them gently thumping each other or chiding one another in a way that brings both actors, and their lovely on-screen chemistry to life.  It’s a good story for Sarah, relying on that nose for trouble that got her into the Doctor’s life, and the undercover thing is a nice throwback to her UNIT days, even if the Voracians are irritatingly several steps ahead.  Her occasional bewilderment at 1998 also gives us a unique look at a Doctor Who companion, seldom seen by stories that always go further afield in time.

And there’s something heartening about reading a story for Harry Sullivan as an older man.  It’s not just delightful to show a companion having moved on with their life, still treasuring their memories and falling into an easy rhythm when the Doctor returns; it’s also beautiful to give Ian Marter a role he was no longer around to play.  The final moment, with the older Harry talking to the Sarah of his time, both still friends, holds a kind of sepia appeal now they’re both gone.

The Missing Adventures occupy an awkward spot.  Should they be too much like the TV adventures, they’re derivative; should they veer off to the side, they’re wrong.  System Shock is the kind of thriller you just wouldn’t get in the show circa 1975, never mind the technology involved, but Richards is savvy enough about Doctor Who to tick the right boxes, writing the regulars brilliantly and having the Doctor ultimately outwit the evil computer, bringing it more or less down to Earth.  (The penultimate scene, cutting from the explosion to the Doctor and Sarah immediately departing in the TARDIS, certainly rings true!)  But as it juggles The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spooks and Doctor Who, it’s ultimately rather an odd fit, and occasionally dry and dull for its genre, not to mention Doctor Who.

6/10